Losing the war? It’s our own fault. Part 1

In the Foreward to Educational Courage: Resisting the Ambush of Public Education (EC: RTAOPE) Deborah Meier wrote:

And we need resistance to the continuing assault on public education that reduces schools to market-driven factories that select and sort our students, distorting visions of communities of learning and growth and activism. We can’t internalize the norm that’s out there and can’t accept that this is “the way things have to be.” We mustn’t adjust to injustice, losing our visions, our hope and our active resistance. (pp. x-xi)

I’m on the side of resistance because I agree with Meier.

But I also wonder why the 25 essayists in this book, Diane Ravitch (Reign of Error) and Fenwick English (Educational Leadership in the Age of Greed) have all recently argued against privatization. Is it because we are losing the school reform war? Is it because we are going down a path that turns away from equal educational opportunity (EEO)? Is it because privatizers are winning the war with slogans like:

  • Public schools are failing.
  • Bad teachers can’t be fired.
  • Public education is a monopoly with no incentive to improve?

I start with a brief history of equal educational opportunity. Then I describe the school reform war. I conclude by explaining what needs to be done and why we won’t do it.

History — Public Education Governance

Education is not mentioned in the Constitution, so the Tenth Amendment makes education a power granted to the states. Even so, public education has long been considered a national concern. According to some historians, our 51 systems of public education (including D.C.) contributed to winning WWII, losing the space race in 1957, and losing our global economic advantage in the 1980s.

The federal government became involved with public education for the first time with the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890. Federal lands were granted to states for public universities.

Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) was the first K-12 federal intervention. The Supreme Court held that segregated public schools were inherently unequal. States had to integrate with “all deliberate speed.”

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was passed in 1965, as part of the “War on Poverty.” It emphasized equal access to education, and authorized federally funded education programs administered by the states.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 was the next federal intervention. It prohibited “discrimination on the basis of sex in all federally-assisted education programs and activities.”  Elementary schools had one year to comply. High schools and colleges had three years. Failure to comply meant states would lose federal funding.

Public Law 94-142 (1975), was the next federal intervention. It had four purposes:

  • to assure that all children with disabilities have available to them … a free appropriate public education which emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs
  • to assure that the rights of children with disabilities and their parents … are protected
  • to assist States and localities to provide for the education of all children with disabilities
  • to assess and assure the effectiveness of efforts to educate all children with disabilities

Source: Education for All Handicapped Children Act, 1975

In summary, starting in the 1950s, K-12 public education has been governed by state and federal laws that follow two general principles: (1) States are responsible for governing public education. (2) They lose federal funds if they fail to abide by federal laws that ensure, as much as possible, EEO for all students, regardless of race, gender, or handicap.

History — State Funding

Equal educational opportunity for children in poor neighborhoods and districts was kept out of federal courts by the landmark case, Rodriguez v. San Antonio ISD. In 1973 the US Supreme Court ruled five to four against Rodríguez. Since then, state courts and legislatures have been expected to provide equal educational opportunities for students living in low wealth districts. Some states have responded well. Others have not.  An example of the first is Kentucky:

In response to the Kentucky Supreme Court ruling that the schools were inequitable and inefficient, the legislature totally revamped Kentucky’s education system in the areas of finance, governance, and curriculum in an attempt to provide equal educational opportunities for all of Kentucky’s children regardless of the property wealth of their district.

An example of the second is North Carolina. Ever since Leandro v. State (1994), the State Board of Education and legislature have challenged the court’s remedies, even though the NC Constitution says:

The General Assembly shall provide by taxation and otherwise for a general and uniform system of free public schools, which shall be maintained at least nine months in every year, and wherein equal opportunities shall be provided for all students — Article IX, Sec. 2 (1).

Most state Constitutions have an EEO clause. Some legislatures try to achieve it, some ignore it, and some resist. But let’s be clear about this ideal. The primary responsibility of all state legislatures and school boards is to provide both an excellent and equitable system of public education. They cannot provide just excellence. That is the definition of private education. EEO makes public education public.

History — The Ambush

Look at the subtitle of Educational Courage. It is “Resisting the Ambush of Public Education.” The publication of the Reagan administration’s A Nation at Risk (ANAR) report (1983) was the point at which Americans became alarmed about the nation’s schools. Notice the title. It’s not “Some states are at risk,” even though many states were providing both excellent and, as much as possible, equal educational opportunities. The title said we were “a nation” at risk. Was this misleading title an oversight, or was it the start of an ambush?

Evidence over the past thirty years suggests it was the latter. Conservatives have ambushed public education from several angles, even when their angle gives up on EEO. As privatization has gained steam, we can look back at some of their angles. One angle was Thomas Sowell, imploring us to reject the ideal of equal opportunity — not because it’s the wrong ideal, but because it interferes with building more excellent, more private educational systems.  A second angle was the ambush of teacher bargaining rights in Wisconsin. A third angle was taken by the North Carolina legislature, which is gradually eliminating career status for teachers as it requires principals to identify the 25% of their faculties who will receive a pay increase. Disrespecting the teaching profession undermines the teachers who are dedicated to building schools “wherein equal opportunities shall be provided for all students.”

Throughout the 1980s and 90s states addressed the concerns raised in ANAR. Legislatures set standards and established accountability policies. Both political parties believe teachers should be held accountable for students’ standardized test scores because both believe in “the standards and accountability movement” (TSAM).

In North Carolina, for example, after Republicans won control of the House in 1994, the Education Oversight Committee told Democrats to either pass legislation to hold teachers accountable, or vouchers would be proposed. Democrats agreed and within months the ABCs of North Carolina became law. “A” stands for accountability, “B” for basics, and “C” for local control (I love irony).

Today’s privatizers align themselves with both ANAR, and TSAM.

What Does the War Look Like?

Professors of education are the primary battlers for EEO. Authors in EC: RTAOPE, Ravitch, and English are examples. K-12 educators are minimally involved because they’re too busy trying to provide EEO to the children most in need of public education. (A few teachers took time to write essays for EC: RTAOPE.) Furthermore, privatizers have successfully portrayed the National Education Association and state affiliates as protectors of bad teachers, so their voices are suspect.

That leaves education professors and activist parents to battle privatizers for the direction of public education. For us the question is, “Should reform move us toward greater privatization, or toward greater commitment to EEO — the ideal we have been struggling to achieve since the Common School Movement of the mid-1800s?”

On the other side privatizers argue that: (1) we are a nation at risk; (2) failing public schools are the cause; (3) we need reforms like TSAM, school choice, charters, vouchers, and privatization; (4) any argument against these reforms is an argument for the status quo; (5) any argument for equal educational opportunities is an argument for the status quo.

Their strategy is simple. They continually re-state the following simple, partial truths:

  1. Teachers should be held accountable for student scores.
  2. Standards define what students should learn at each grade level.
  3. Test scores tell us how much students learned.
  4. Test scores measure teacher effectiveness.

(1) It’s simple and partially true that teachers should be held accountable for student test scores. The whole truth is that student scores are a shared responsibility. Teachers, students, parents, and policy makers are all partially responsible.

(2) It’s simple and partially true that standards define what students should learn in each subject at each grade level. The whole truth is that standards tell teachers what to teach to three groups of students: (a) those who are ready to learn it, (b) those who were ready months ago, and (c) those who are not yet ready. Teachers see the harm done to students in the third group by the standards and accountability movement.

(3) It’s simple and partially true that test scores tell us how much students learned. The whole truth is that student learning is always greater than what is reflected in scores. An example is the driver’s license written test. Aspiring drivers always learn more than what is reflected on their written exam score. We don’t know how much more, until we ride in the car with the new driver.

(4) Finally, it’s simple and partially true that scores reflect teacher effectiveness. The whole truth is that the rich meaning of “teacher effectiveness” is much deeper than the difference between a pre-lesson test score and a post-lesson one.  The whole truth is that real “effectiveness” involves a broad set of student achievements — many of which are not reflected in test scores. Those of us who attended school prior to TSAM can remember many times when teachers effectively related an important life lesson, effectively inspired us to read something that was not on the test, or effectively counseled us in a way that helped us grow.

Still, privatizers are winning the war because:

(1) They have a lot of money to publicize their arguments. (Their message is funded by foundations like The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Broad Foundation, and The Wallace Foundation; by charter school corporations, by conservative think tanks, and by contributors to the National Council on Teacher Quality.)

(2) State legislatures are focused on TSAM, not EEO (I love irony).

(3) Our side’s arguments are complicated.

The rest of this essay looks at the last reason because only millionaires can do anything about the first two.

What Needs to Happen?

We are in a Catch-22. We are trying to explain the findings and limitations of educational research to Americans who can only understand simple arguments. Only highly educated citizens can understand our arguments, but Americans were educated in public schools that are so bad they need to be reformed.

Therefore, we need to shift our school improvement paradigm. For the last 60 years we have tried to improve education by applying what research has found to be effective — the “social science improvement paradigm.” It is based on an analogy with the medical field. Doctors use tests to diagnose illnesses and then prescribe drugs that medical researchers discovered through natural science experiments. Similarly, teachers are supposed to use tests to diagnose student inadequacies and treat them with social scientific, research-based teaching methods. (I return to this paradigm in the last section.)

I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1970s and 1980s, when professors said they were experimenting with professionalizing teaching and principaling. Just like medical doctors applied the findings of natural science experiments, they wanted us to apply their research findings, when we became principals and assistant principals.

During my ten years as a school administrator (1978-1988), I never applied a single research finding to any situation. Instead, I always applied what I learned from my mother.

When I became a professor of educational administration, I discovered that the experiment had become orthodoxy. I am now supposed to conduct research on school administration, understand and teach the school administration knowledge base, and tell students to apply what research has found to be “effective.” No other approach to preparing school administrators is acceptable; even though, when I was a school administrator, I never applied a single one of my professors’ findings.

This paradigm was our creation, and it started as an experiment. It is time to declare a failed experiment and shift paradigms for the simple reason that “best practices” and research-based methods have not improved education. I challenge teachers and principals to describe a time when a classroom or school was improved through the application of a research-based method. Simply click on “comment” and answer these questions:

1. What was the research finding?

2. What was done to apply it?

3. What were the results?

4. How do you know if the results were caused by the application or something else?

If I want too much certainty from educational research, then it is time to drop the medical field analogy, which is based on certainty — even down to side effects. It is time to admit that teachers’ work with 25 students in classrooms is nothing like physicians’ work with one person in a diagnose-and-treat situation.

The other reason we should reject the social science improvement paradigm is that privatizers bang us over the head with it all the time.

My first example is the recent call for teachers and principals to be data driven — BANG! When woozy teachers and school administrators ask, “You mean I shouldn’t be judgment-driven?” The answer from both privatizers AND our side is, “Yes – apply what research has found to be effective, and do it with fidelity — BANG!

A second example is this North Carolina legislator’s website that points to research that does not support pay increases for teachers with masters’ degrees:

Interestingly, research has shown that teacher performance and student outcomes have no bearing on attaining an advanced degree. According to the Center for American Progress, a liberal research and advocacy organization, “teachers with master’s degrees … are no more effective, on average, than their counterparts without master’s degrees.”

These findings are from a study by a liberal think tank — Bang!

A final example is the feud about whether money makes a difference in education. Here are links to two reports. The first is written by Bruce Baker, an education professor fighting on our side.  The second is published by the National Center for Teacher Quality (NCTQ). Its board of advisers is a “Who’s Who” of privatizers.

Baker says research supports the idea that money matters. Therefore, policies that cut education funding are likely to hurt student attainment (test scores).

The NCTQ report says that, according to the research cited at the end, the things money buys do not make a difference. Therefore, education funding cuts won’t hurt student attainment (test scores). According to this report, research suggests that we should consider new education policies, especially those that favor privatization — Bang!

These reports illustrate the difference between the simplicity of privatizer arguments and the complicated nature of ours. Reading just a few paragraphs of each makes this clear. Their side’s paragraphs are easy to understand. The Baker argument is incomprehensible to anybody without a PhD in educational statistics.

It’s easy for privatizers to use our improvement paradigm against us. As long as we use research findings to support our arguments, we have to accept the research-based arguments that don’t. Or else we have to engage in complicated arguments about the merits and shortcomings of different social science research. The Baker “Research Brief” is an example. Either way we lose, which is exactly what is happening.

Other examples of how we argue our side are Diane Ravitch’s two interviews on National Public Radio. She and Andrew Rotherham were interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air following the publication of Ravitch’s first about-face book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. After publication of her second, about-face book, The Reign of Error, she was a guest on On Point. Both Ravitch and her opponents pointed to research findings to support their arguments. Ravitch made that very point in her blog:

I pointed out to her that everything in my book is carefully documented, that my data is right from the US Department of Education website.

She was defending herself against the accusation of being partisan (I love irony).

(If you go to the blog, scroll down to the comments by Joe Nathan, chemtchr, and Cosmic Thinker.)

Whether we agree with Ravitch’s about-face, or Rotherman’s arguments, here is the social science improvement scorecard over the last thirty years:

1980s — Privatizers score a point. ANAR painted public schools as failing. It cited data to support that conclusion, leaving out data that did not. (The Sandia Report is a case study of Republicans burying their own data, when it did not support their argument.)

1960s-2000 – Privatizers score another point. Researchers in colleges of education applied for National Institute of Health, Department of Education, and National Science Foundation grants to support their studies, many of which were designed to support EEO for the students most in need of public education. Researchers looked for the benefits of smaller class sizes and more money for education. They stayed within the limitations of their research methods, being careful not to draw unwarranted conclusions. Some studies did not find that smaller class sizes and more per-pupil spending improved student test scores. (It is easy to understand why not. Teachers instruct small classes the same way they do large ones, and school boards are notoriously bad at spending discretionary funds.)

Post 2001 — Privatizers score another point as the research-based requirement of No Child Left Behind leads to today’s data-driven emphasis, instead of a judgment-driven one.

If you are keeping score, it’s Privatizers 3, Our Side 0.

The social science improvement paradigm, which was the experimental darling of education professors throughout the last half of the 20th century; is now used by privatizers, who can point to research findings that do not support the benefits of smaller class sizes, teachers with masters degrees, and higher funding levels. And since the recession of 2008, cutbacks to federal and state agencies, have shifted research-based policy making in favor of privatizers, who have the power of funding research all to themselves. Conservative billionaires, foundations and think tanks have stepped into the research-funding void to pay for research designed to support privatization.

Charles Murray (The Bell Curve, 1994, and Real Education, 2008) is the privatizers’ golden boy in all of this. He knows norm-referenced standardized test scores form a bell-shaped curve, which means they are not sensitive to factors like the number of students in class, the amount of money spent, or the degrees held by teachers. If higher scores on norm-referenced tests define educational improvement, Murray knows liberal remedies won’t improve education. Nothing will. It’s simple mathematics.

That’s why we need a paradigm shift. Let me explain.

A paradigm is a framework for making improvements. It starts with an assumption that raises specific questions, the answering of which produces the knowledge that leads to improvement. When our assumption is correct, our imaginations ask questions and create the experiments that produce the knowledge needed for improvement. If our assumption is incorrect, though, progress requires a paradigm shift — a completely different way to look at how to make improvements.

Joel Barker explains that paradigm shifts are sometimes essential to improvement and success. (Google him to see some of his videos.) He tells the story of Swiss watch makers, who were shown the possibilities of battery-operated, quartz watches. They rejected the idea because, according to their assumption, watches needed to be driven by main springs. Therefore, they asked questions about how to build main springs. Answering those questions produced the knowledge needed to build the world’s best main-spring-driven watches. Unfortunately, their assumption also blinded them to how an electronic pulse sent through a piece of quartz could keep better time than the unwinding of a spring.

We need a school improvement paradigm shift because our assumption about how to improve schools is wrong. Schools don’t improve through the application of what research has found to be effective. They improve when educators are inspired and inspiring — the same things that characterize all works of art. Instead of assuming that improving schools is an applied social science, we need to realize it is an art.

Why we won’t do it

The EC: RTAOPE editors’ Preface concludes:

We believe that, despite the grave threat to public education today, we can collectively turn the tide. We hope the vision in this book will encourage you to hold on to hope and join with others to reclaim public education for the public good.

They want to turn the tide, but there is not a single mention of a paradigm shift in this book. Vision, hope, and collective action are good things, but they won’t win this war, if we continue to assume that schools improve when educators apply what research has found to be “effective.”

Education professors created this improvement paradigm as a way to professionalize the work of educators. It is based on the assumption that improvement follows from applying what research has found to be “effective.” If this is true, it should be easy for educators to answer the four questions about when it happened in their classrooms or schools. If it ever happened, the assumption is true and too obvious to be questioned — education improves through the application of what research has found to be effective.

On the other hand, if analysis of these “improved situations” shows that improvement was caused by inspired, inspiring educators, those same descriptions are an argument for shifting to an aesthetic improvement paradigm. I predict that, if we did such an analysis, we would find that all of the improvements resulted from inspired, inspiring educators bringing the six virtues of the educated person to the improvement situation.

I also predict that we won’t shift paradigms. The reason is that educational researchers and policy makers think deductively, not inductively. Inductive thinking is required to see that the only thing that makes teaching an applied social science is the assumption that it is. It is also required to see that teaching is always an art that sometimes has social scientific features.

For more on this topic, go to Losing the War, Part 2.


#1 Mike Weddington on 10.18.13 at 2:46 am

The more I study this topic, the more I agree with you. I think it is funny (in a sick twisted way) that no matter how well our students do on standardized tests from year to year, the goal line is always moved the next year to keep students boxed into the same four categories of student achievement. If every student were to get a 4 on the EOG tests in 3-5 grade, then they would design a test that would spread the point distribution back to level 1-4 the next year. Can we constantly move the goal line and expect our students to score? Seems dubious to me.


#2 casey on 10.18.13 at 3:45 pm

Good point Mike. Does anybody out there want to argue that we give criterion-referenced standardized tests? The state of Florida’s website says the FCAT is a criterion-referenced test. It later describes the four levels of student scores. It must be coincidence that the range of scores is smallest for the middle two levels and greatest for levels 1 and 4. It sure looks like a bell-shaped curve to me.

#3 Elizabeth Humphries on 10.20.13 at 12:16 am

My thoughts to your comments about the simple, partial truths:
1. Why are teachers made to feel as though we are the only ones who are held accountable? Parents are sometimes blameless and not obliged to accept the responsibility of their child’s failures.
2. I don’t disagree with standards, but the accountability piece bothers me.
3. There is always more than what test scores show and they do not always show teacher effectiveness.

This is an excellent quote from Educational Courage: “Who better to judge what students know and are able to do than the teachers who spend hours each day and days each year working directly with their student? No state-mandated and -centralized, standardized test could provide the same degree of quality in terms of judging what students have learned and how well they have learned” (Christensen & Gallagher, 2012, P. 57).

#4 Charles Williams on 10.21.13 at 9:42 pm

I thought it very interesting that I sat down to read your blog today and how ironic that about an hour earlier I was pouring over NCDPI released test scores for 2012-2013 which were released this week. Another administrator and I were reviewing “teachers test scores.” In the back of my mind, I continually thought about this very subject and specifically our discussions in the GTM, as well as the text in which we have been reading.
My colleague and I discussed how the scores could be a reflection of the teacher and what that could potentially reveal about the instructional piece within the classroom. However, I had to remind myself (even though I am now looking at these numbers from a different perspective) that this is only a small piece of the puzzle. That was an “eye opener” for me today!
I agree with many of your statements and thoughts, particularly about being “school vs educated.” As well, I agree with Mike’s comment about changing the scoring of testing. This happened several years ago with the NC Writing Test. As soon as “we figured it out” per say and scores across the state began to climb— the test took a different route and the rules changed. Unfortunately- it happens!

#5 Erica Penny on 03.09.14 at 3:44 pm

I love the idea in Education Courage of using their art and inspiration “in the cracks.” I think that may be the key teachers need to begin feeling inspired again. Whenever they can squeeze in a little bit of inspiration and find the art of teaching within the context of preparing for the text, they are one step closer to a new paradigm.

It saddens me to see my first grade son (who is a year older than his classmates because we did a transitional K program), struggle with the new challenges presented to first graders. I remember when Kindergarten was where you learned to get along with other children and began learning the alphabet. Now, we’ve forgotten to teach children how to play and get along and Kindergarteners are expected to be reading before first grade. Thank heavens I kept my son in transK and heaven help the children who didn’t have that advantage. We can’t keep upping the bar for children. There are expectations that are developmentally appropriate and the standards makers and test makers have forgotten that.

Leave a Comment